The strong leg, sure hands and foul mouth of Steve Weatherford
When it comes to profanity-laced exultations of joy that are caught on camera, Steve Weatherford’s reaction to Lawrence Tynes’ game winning-field goal in the conference championship game against the 49ers last week might not have had the significance of, say, Joe Biden’s reaction to universal health care.
But to Giants fans, the field goal—which was made possible by Weatherford's nifty hold of a bad snap, and which Weatherford reacted to by screaming in view of Fox’s camera that the Giants were going to the “mother fuckin’ Super Bowl”—was a pretty big deal in its own right.
Weatherford, the Giants’ punter and holder on place-kicks, had said as much before the kick, which followed a five-yard delay-of-game penalty. While kicker Lawrence Tynes, a quiet, studious fellow who wants to be an N.F.L. general manager one day, was clinically approaching the task at hand, Weatherford screamed in his face, “This is a fucking Super Bowl spot, right here!” according to accounts. Then he ran over toward Tom Coughlin and yelled the same thing.
See, that’s how Weatherford approaches the anxiousness inherent in his job. To be a specialist in the N.F.L. is to be at the mercy of how your body executes several momentary spasms of action in a week of idleness. Some players combat the natural build-up of tension by assuming a Zen calm. But Weatherford jacks himself up, mentally and physically.
His maniacal workout and nutrition regimen was the subject of a Men’s Fitness photo spread, which features photos of Weatherford’s impossibly ripped, inked-up body and pointers about how he acquired it: like eating 200 grams of protein a day, four times the F.D.A. recommendation, which helps fuel his 400-pound bench press.
Of his training habits, he told the New York Times earlier this year that “kicking and punting is very similar to being a golfer—you can often get to a point where you’re in a slump because something changed in your routine. I want to keep my routine the same and I want to try and do that for a long time.”
The funny thing for Giants fans is that Weatherford is their second atypically brawny punter in as many years. Weatherford’s predecessor, Matt Dodge, was an amateur bodybuilder himself. Unfortunately, he also performed like an amateur punter, and consequently became one of the most unpopular Giants in recent memory.
While Weatherford’s M.O. is psyching himself up for the moment, Dodge, when the camera was trained on him, seemed to have the doomed, far-away expression of a high-school kid walking into an exam he hasn’t studied for. His pre-snap demeanor didn’t inspire confidence, and the post-snap results were suitably unimpressive.
According to the stats of Football Outsiders, which translate the field position accrued during punts into expected points, Dodge and the rest of the Giants’ punt-coverage team cost the Giants 15.6 points last year, third-worst in the league. (This includes the infamous six points scored by DeSean Jackson on an ill-conceived punt that help cost the Giants a crucial game against Philadelphia.)
This year, with Weatherford posting a career-high average in both yards per punt (45.7) and net yards (39.2), the Giants’ punt team earned them an expected 10.9 points, fifth-best in the league. The switch from Dodge to Weatherford, presumably along with improved coverage, netted the Giants 26.5 points from one season to the next.
For a 2011 Giants team that was cumulatively outscored by its opponents by six points, and for whom five of nine victories came by four points or less, and for whom anything less than its middling 9-7 record would have amounted to elimination from the playoffs, suffice it to say that Giants needed every last one of those 26.5 points.
Impressive as those stats were, they don’t account for Weatherford’s tour de force in San Francisco last Sunday, when he set a record with 557 gross punting yards over the course of his 12 punts. Time after time, the Giants offense would by stymied by a ferocious 49er defense. Each time, Weatherford put the pressure back on the 49ers with an excellent punt. Two of these punts led directly to 49ers turnovers and Giants scores, including the game-winner.
That’s not bad for a guy whose contract wasn’t renewed by his former team, the Jets, and who was then sent into free-agency with some uncommonly harsh words by their salty special teams coach, Mike Westhoff.
Even though Weatherford tied an N.F.L. record by having 42 punts downed inside the 20-yard line, Westhoff told reporters, “There were times when he just didn’t do his job.”
And even though the Jets finished second according to the Football Outsiders rankings, Weatherford’s gross-punting-yards average— a generally misleading stat that doesn’t account for a punter intentionally avoiding a touchback or a return—was 23rd. (His net average was 15th.)
“It wasn’t good enough,” Westhoff said. “It wasn’t. I don’t want to be 23rd in the N.F.L. That’s where he was."
For the record, without Weatherford, the Jets punt team went from second in the Football Outsiders rankings in 2010 to fourth in 2011.
JEFF FEAGLES, A 22-YEAR N.F.L. PUNTER WHO PLAYED his last seven with the Giants and who now works as a commentator for the Giants’ postgame show, told me over the phone that Weatherford “is just finally peaking. I think he’s finally figuring out how to be a good punter and how to directionally kick.”
Feagles’ strength was directional punting, in which he would punt to the sideline and either kick it out of bounds or hem in the returner in with nowhere to run. Feagles kicked directionally basically every time. He estimated Weatherford does so around 40 percent of the time.
“He hasn’t mastered the art yet, but he’s getting there,” Feagles said.
I asked Feagles about his own mastery of this art, which enabled him to play so many years until his body, at 44, succumbed to the middle-aged problem of not being able to run anymore. I expected a technical explanation about foot angles and the harmony of different body hinges, but I didn’t get one. It turns out that Feagles was simply good at facing a spot on the sideline—usually informed by the side-judge, who lined up in line with the return-man, around 50 yards down field— and kicking it there.
“It’s all about angling to a spot on the sideline and letting it rip,” he said.
A key to doing so successfully, Feagles said, is simply developing confidence.
“It takes a lot of work and repetition to become confident. Because you’re kicking it to the sidelines, and your misses turn into horrible punts when the angle becomes off. If you’re trying to kick it 45 yards, and you’re angle’s just a little off, it’s a 25-yard punt,” he said.
When the Giants signed Weatherford, Dodge was still on the roster, and the Giants said the two would compete for the starting job in training camp. This seemed ridiculous to Giants fans, who had spent the previous season envying the Jets for having a viable punter while the Giants were committed to the strong-legged but horribly inconsistent Dodge.
But according to Feagles, it was indeed an open competition. The Giants were enamored with Dodge’s potential, but Feagles himself didn’t think Dodge had the constitution to fully realize it.
“What he didn’t have was the mental toughness, and I don’t think he had that drive,” Feagles said. “I don’t think he really wanted to punt. He was more into weight-lifting and whatever. As much as I was around him, I didn’t really see the drive.”
But Feagles thinks it wasn’t Dodge’s punting that cost him the job, but the fact that he couldn’t hold for placekicks, while Weatherford could. Dodge began 2010 as the holder, but was replaced by backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels after some blunders.
Then Rosenfels got hurt during training camp this year. The Giants, not wanting once again to take the unusual step of training the backup quarterback as the holder —or the past decade-plus, using the punter as the holder is near-universal practice—were all but forced to keep Weatherford over Dodge.
“I think it was a true competition, I really do,” Feagles said. “Ultimately, what I think cost Matt Dodge his job was that Sage was hurt and Matt Dodge can’t hold.”
And, as he proved last Sunday, Weatherford can.
Greg Hanlon will be writing about the Giants each day this week in the run-up to the Super Bowl.